THE humble backyard chook is giving commercial egg producers a run for their money.
As the home-grown trend gathers pace, eggs laid in backyards are now estimated by the Australian Egg Corporation to make up nearly 12 per cent of the country's total annual production.
The surge in popularity of poultry as pets is felt particularly keenly during what's known as the spring flush - from the end of July until the end of September - when the weather's right and chooks pecking around the Hills hoist begin laying like mad.
And although Australians are buying and devouring more eggs than ever, John O'Hara, the boss of one of Australia's biggest commercial egg marketers, Sunny Queen Farms, says the spring flush results in his company's egg sales falling by 6 per cent in that period.
Mr O'Hara said the rise in popularity of backyard chicken coops might have been driven partly by a growing national appetite for eggs.
"I joined the industry 10 years ago, when there was a misconception about cholesterol in eggs and that eggs had too much fat," he said.
"Eggs weren't on the menu - they weren't seen as sexy.
"But over the last few years, you've seen education programs busting the myths: eggs have only one gram of fat and are very low in saturated fat."
According to egg corporation figures, the average Australian ate more than 210 eggs last financial year, up on the five-year average of 183 eggs.
Retail egg sales have also skyrocketed, with 126 million dozen eggs sold in the year ending last June, up 21 per cent on the five-year average.
Melanie Poole, 44, from Windsor in Brisbane's inner north, and her family have kept chooks in their backyard for six years and now rarely buy eggs.
"They're much fresher-tasting with a stronger coloured yolk (than store-bought eggs)," she said.
"It's good for kids to be more involved in knowing where their food comes from. And the chooks recycle our vegetable scraps."
James Kellaway, managing director of the egg corporation, which represents commercial egg producers, told The Australian that while he was a "champion of the egg", families with backyard chooks needed to be mindful of potential health risks.
"While commercial producers have significant systems in place to ensure the production of a healthy and safe food product, we're concerned that some eggs from backyard operations could have hairline cracks or be dirty or soiled by manure, posing significant health risks," Mr Kellaway said, adding that dirty shells could carry salmonella.
He said home-grown eggs should be checked carefully for cleanliness and tiny cracks and should be refrigerated as soon as they were laid.
Read more at The Australian.